Gameweek 31’s fixture list is a little bit sad. Saturday afternoon reads more like a set of rescheduled midweek Scottish Premier League fixtures than a prime-time Premier League billing, and there’s now a worryingly probable chance that I’m going to be forced to watch BBC1’s Escape to the Country as opposed to the usual pre-match build-up that precedes the 17:30 kick-off. Sorry, Jules, but it’s just not the same.
But sadder than Gameweek 31’s impoverished menu of matches is a failure to prepare for them. That’s where we come in. In this article we’ve extracted the underlying stats – you know the ones, expected goals (xG), expected assists (xA) and expected goals allowed (xGA) – to give you the tools needed to build the optimal Free Hit team or tweak your pre-existing squad. It’s all about maximising the points potential of this blank gameweek, because, whether we like it or not, it’s just as valuable as all the others. Maybe they don’t have to be so sad after all?
He can hit a Barnes door
I tend to follow a simple rule in FPL: never choose a player with a receding hairline. Generally speaking, it works well; keeping out the likes of Glenn Murray, Phil Jones and, until recently, Ashley Barnes. But the expected stats don’t lie – they can’t because they’re stats – and they’re pointing to the balding brilliance of Burnley’s Ashley Barnes.
It’s no secret that he, and Burnley as a side, have been in uncharacteristically fine form of late. With the highest xG over the past 6 gameweeks of all of the blank gameweek players ahead of Gameweek 31, he simply cannot be ignored. Reinforcing these stats is a rich vein of goalscoring form. With the exception of the more premium Jamie Vardy and Sadio Mane, Barnes is the highest goalscorer over the past 6 matches too. With a home fixture against the defensively fragile Leicester City, it could be time to rescind my rule and back the shiny-headed striker.
Leicester attackers back to their best
Remember that time when Jamie Vardy couldn’t stop scoring? Well, with 5 goals in his last 6 games and the 2nd highest xG of those playing in Gameweek 31 to boot, it looks like those days have returned. His form under Brendan Rodgers has transformed, but it’s not just Vardy who has benefitted from the new management at the King Power.
His colleagues, the much-discussed James Maddison, the hotly-tipped Harvey Barnes, the under-the-radar Youri Tielemans and the oft-frustrating Ricardo Pereira all make it into the top 10 for expected assists, as well as Jamie Vardy himself. Let me repeat that: 5 of the top 10 for xA over the past 6 gameweeks are Leicester City players. They travel to Turf Moor, which is never an easy journey, but with expected stats as compelling as these, they must surely factor into Gameweek 31’s plans.
Rondon could be the Gameweek 31’s dark horse
If someone had told me at Christmas that by Gameweek 31 I’d be writing a paragraph about the virtues of Salomon Rondon, I’d have probably advised them to call it a day on the Tesco Bucks Fizz. But here we are, a few months later, discussing the virtues of Salomon Rondon. And for good reason.
The Venezuelan is one of only two players (the other being Jamie Vardy) to feature in both the top 10 xG and xA ahead of Gameweek 31 over the past 6 matches. With only 2 goals in his last 6, the Newcastle man is flying under the radar at just 8.8% ownership at the time of writing. But his expected stats hint at more to come; and with a visit to the defensively dubious Bournemouth, there’s a strong case to be made for the domineering centre-forward.
Ignore Chelsea defence? You’ll be Sarri.
Chelsea’s away xGA of 1.77 over the past 6 matches doesn’t make for pleasant reading. But write Sarri’s men off at your peril. The last 6 matches include a 4-0 defeat to Bournemouth and a 6-0 defeat to Man City; hardly glowing away results, but hardly common for the London side either.
In Everton, they travel to the team with the lowest average home xG of any of the home teams in action in Blank Gameweek 31; which includes the hardly prolific Burnley, Fulham and West Ham. It’s a damning statistic for the Merseyside outfit, softened only by the fact that their last 3 home fixtures have been against Liverpool, Man City and Wolves. Even so, Chelsea are as strong as any of those sides on their day, and with the likes of David Luiz and Cesar Azpilicueta both capable of attacking returns too, investment in their backline could be a masterstroke.
Bournemouth attackers back on the menu
I suspect the only reason Callum Wilson doesn’t feature on the xG chart above is because he has played so little over the last 6 gameweeks. Had he avoided injury, I’d wager he’d be there or thereabouts – perhaps, with a bit of luck, he’d even better the might of Ashley Barnes. But if his return to action in Gameweek 30 taught us anything, it’s that Wilson – and his Bournemouth colleagues – are back with a bang. They host Newcastle – a team who are saddled with the highest (and therefore the worst) xGA of any of the away sides playing in Gameweek 31. In other words, their opposition this gameweek could not be better for attacking returns.
Aside from Wilson, Ryan Fraser makes a fantastic case for himself; the diminutive Scotsman had a fantastic first half of the season, and whilst his ownership has dropped off lately, he finds himself 3rd for xA among those playing this gameweek. The omens certainly look promising for Howe’s side.
Fulham could spring a surprise on Liverpool’s defence
Whilst Liverpool go into Sunday’s game against Fulham with the best away xGA of all the blank gameweek sides (0.61), they face a Fulham side who can boast the 2nd highest home xG (1.75) – second only to Burnley, of all teams. Combine this with the very non-statistical but still worthy consideration of the weight on Liverpool’s title-striving shoulders, and one can very easily begin to doubt a Liverpool shut-out here.
Gameweek 30’s game against Burnley was a textbook example of how precarious a clean sheet can be when you’re playing a team who have a bit of attacking flair. In Fulham, they face a team who are fatally lacking in the defensive department but still have an array of attacking gems to call upon, not least the ever-present Mitrovic, who finds himself amongst the top 10 for this week’s xG. The expected stats are unsurprisingly still pointing towards a convincing Liverpool win, but with the title race bearing down on Klopp’s men, mistakes are inevitable. Fulham are a side that could well exploit them.